What’s in a name? You’d be surprised!

What’s my Name? Radio show image – American Broadcasting Company-ABC Radio via Wikimedia

Names – the most central element of our persona and self-esteem, argues Mike Zollo.

If you think about it, our own name is our most vital possession, the very core of our being – the root of our identity and our self-esteem, both of which can be impacted, positively or negatively. In a BBC article from May 2021, How your name affects your personality, Gordon Allport, one of the founders of personality psychology, stated in 1961:

“The most important anchorage to our self-identity throughout life remains our own name”.

This was reinforced by David Zhu, a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, who researches the psychology of names:

“Because a name is used to identify an individual and communicate with the individual on a daily basis, it serves as the very basis of one’s self-conception, especially in relation to others”.

The children’s news service, BBC Newsround, addressed this issue in March 2021 in an article called Why do names and how they’re pronounced matter? It starts with an interesting question: “What is something that belongs to you, but is used more often by others? Your name of course!”

One of the first things a child learns to say is its name. To that first act of self-identification we add the skills, experiences and values which make up our identity. When we hear someone’s name, it often triggers a visual and/or mental picture of that person, adding their personality to their name. Sadly, at the other end of life, dementia can lead to such loss of memory that the individual may forget not only the names of family members, but even their own name.

Of course, most of us have at least two names. Many of us still refer to our first name as our ‘Christian name’, the name given to us at our christening or baptism. Hence, we may have a saint’s name, and in Roman Catholic countries this is sometimes the name of the saint to whom that day is dedicated. Mine is 29 September, the feast day of St Michael the Archangel. Equally, names may be handed down from one generation to another. In my own family the recurrent boy’s names used to be Michael and Raphael, alternating, in a tradition dating from as far back as the 1700s. Strangely, we haven’t had a Gabriel, the third of the Archangels in Christian tradition.

In the Church of England and some other denominations a ‘name-giving’ or naming ceremony is now growing popular in place of a full baptism. Then, of course, there are so many other religious and cultural traditions in multi-faith/multi-cultural UK; and, nowadays the term ‘given name’ is increasingly used to indicate the name given at birth, as distinguished from a surname.

In the BBC Newsround article mentioned above, the social media influencer and cancer scientist Yewande Biala says of her unusual first name:

“My grandma died and I was the first girl in the family to be born [after her death]. So basically, the name means she’s come back as me, it means mother has returned. It’s such a beautiful meaning”.

Dalí’s parents named him after their deceased first son, a fact which haunted him, leading to his personality problems and eccentricity! I was named after my uncle, my father’s older brother, an RAF pilot lost over the Mediterranean in May 1944.

Whilst many name their kids to reflect family traditions or religious beliefs, nowadays many more seize on names popularised though the media and sport. It is sometimes possible to guess the age of a person from a name reflective of a distinct period in time. The fashion in names certainly goes in cycles, with many ‘old-school’ names making a big comeback in recent years.

If you’re unhappy with your name you can change it. I know two young women who changed their first name by deed-poll. Name-changing is an essential element of changing one’s gender, and not always to the corresponding equivalent in the opposite gender.

There is not space here to describe the impact of the now extensive panorama of first names, resulting from the influx from other cultures to the United Kingdom over recent decades. This topic has been explored in a book called, coincidentally What’s in a name which I only came across a few days ago, after I had started writing this article! I had listened with interest to the author, Sheela Bannerjee, being interviewed by Michael Rosen in the BBC Radio 4 series Word of Mouth, first broadcast on Tuesday 1 August. Certainly, when I moved from a school in Suffolk to one in the West Midlands in 1981, I rapidly had to adjust to unfamiliar names; Asian pupils made up about 40 per cent of the school. It took me a while to get used to names such as Singh and Kaur, and to the fact that with generic surnames like these so many pupils had the same surname. My next job move was to Devon in 1988. Where I live, in Totnes, considered by many to be a somewhat ‘alternative’ town, one hears first names such as White Owl, Mariposa, Feather and Summer, often with manufactured surnames in the same vein!

Given the importance of first names to the individual, I am reminded of the practice in most schools at secondary level when I was young, and still in some schools today, of referring to pupils by their surname. I never got to know the first names of most of my classmates and friends! Perhaps this usage on the part of teachers was a carry-over from practice in the armed services. Maybe it reflects a wish to depersonalise relationships; certainly, it felt strange to me at first, always having been known by my first name at primary school.

And so, to surnames, last names or family names; they are the most obvious element in our identity to relate us to our families … at least that of our father. For some years now, there have been moves in some parts of the world to give a child the mother’s surname. Indeed, as reported in BBC News in 2014, a court in Italy judged that “the country’s practice of automatically registering a child under the father’s surname was patriarchal and discriminatory”. Most of us have just one, whilst in the UK double-barrelled surnames are sometimes associated (often wrongly) with a certain level of class-standing.

In Spanish speaking countries everyone has two surnames, at least for legal purposes: the father’s surname is followed by the mother’s. However, Spaniards and other Hispanic people are usually known by just one; and not necessarily their father’s surname: Pablo Ruiz Picasso, for example, chose to use his mother’s surname as it was more unusual and therefore impactful; Federico García Lorca did the same. Then, of course, many stars and celebrities have chosen stage names quite different to those they grew up with. Do you have any idea who Harry Webb or Reginald Dwight might be, or how about Priscilla White … and Diana Fluck??!

Surnames began to be used in the Middle Ages: as travel became more common and communities expanded, first names were no longer enough to identify individuals in larger villages and towns. Surnames generally fall into several common categories, at least in the UK. In many cases, patronymics came to be used – names which identified the child’s forebears. Examples such as John Peterson, Rory Macduff, Seamus O’Leary, Martin Fitzroy might give a clue as to the geographical origin of the family. The first three might be from the British Isles, whilst the last might have been of Norman origin, fitz meaning ‘son of …’. Further afield, my favourite: Vigdis Finnbogadottir, president of Iceland in the 1980s and 90s – the first woman president in the world. Now, I wonder what her father’s name might have been …

As their name suggests, locative surnames or toponyms denote the family’s village or town of origin, or even their country; indeed, I suspect that’s the case with my surname, but one doesn’t have to think too hard of a few other examples: York, Milton, Chester, Washington, Cornish, Welsh, French, Israel. A handful of surnames taken from places are teasers in terms of their pronunciation, such as Beauchamp (Beecham), Berkeley (Barkli) and Teignmouth (Tinmuth).

There are many occupational surnames, such as Cooper, Hooper, Tyler, Fletcher, Baker, Thatcher … and of course Smith; interesting how many of these reflect traditional crafts which are almost unknown today. Strange to reflect that one of my great-grandfathers came from a line of blacksmiths, but that was on my paternal grandmother’s side.

Finally, there are surnames that began as nicknames, usually relating to physical characteristics such as Long, Short, Little, and to hair colour such as Black, Whitehead, Redhead; one wonders about Ramsbottom.

In the armed services, the use of nicknames has always been popular, sometimes being a play on the surname, e.g. Dinger Bell, Daisy May, Chalky White and so on. Some are not very complimentary, such as Shagger Shepherd, while others are related to stature such as Stumpy, Lofty and Titch.

Names, both first names and surnames, can also be bound up with prejudice, particularly in wartime or the decades after a war. Between the two World Wars, many people of foreign origins – even if they were well established in the UK – changed their names in order to be less conspicuous. They felt the need to blend in better in British society, which was still uneasy about its enemies. The grandfather of a former prominent MP changed the family name from Wollenstein to a more acceptable anglicised version. Many Italians anglicised their names in the 1930s and 1940s to avoid the manifestations of anti-Italian feelings generated by Fascism and World War II. Typical examples are Pitassi, changed to Pitt or Peters, and D’Agostino, changed to Austin. Nowadays, it strikes us as rather shameful that they felt the need to do so; unfortunately, that urge to blend in to avoid prejudice, still happens today in the post-Brexit era. The whole issue of names being acceptable or not is described by Sheela Bannerjee in her book What’s in a name, as she explains in her interview on Word of Mouth.

Donald Trump – photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Significantly, some names generate strong feelings and emotions, resulting from the fame or infamy of their owners: names like Nero, Henry VIII, Napoleon, Franco, Hitler, Crippen, Jack the Ripper. Ironically, some of the current ‘infamous’ names are in some way singularly appropriate or ironic. The possible meanings of Johnson and Trump are felicitous – as can be seen in our screenshots of these from the relevant dictionaries.

As for the recently-departed Berlusconi, I could never resist the temptation to refer to him as Burlesque-only!

Silvio Berlusconi – photo by Ricardo Stuckert licensed under Creative Commons

Then there is the matter of correct pronunciation of names. In an article by the author Mithu Sanyal, which appeared in BBC online on 26 June 2023, she regrets not having been taught Bengali by her father during her childhood in Germany, with one particularly sad consequence:

“My name, Mithu, is Bengali, but native Bengali speakers have told me that I don’t pronounce it correctly. Yes, that’s right, I can’t even say my own name.”

The article is a fascinating discussion of the pros and cons of children being brought up as bilingual, but that last sentence struck me as very sad. Part-way through the article Mithu includes a video-clip of her father speaking to her in which he teaches her how to pronounce her name correctly.

Having a surname like mine, I can identify with the issues surrounding mispronunciation of one’s name, and even of the resultant feeling of offence. In an article in Education Week published on 17 July 2023, Lydia McFarlane states:

“The constant mispronunciation not only makes school more stressful, it can send a message that teachers aren’t making the effort to respect their identity, culture, and heritage”.

In an article which appeared in July 2020 in the American business magazine, Fast Company, Mita Mallick identifies with this problem not just at school, but in the workplace too; her real name is Madhumita.

“One of the biggest microaggressions that can take place is the repeated mispronunciation of someone’s name. Or in my case, completely changing someone’s name.”

In January 2021 the BBC covered this topic in its feature Equality Matters, with an article called: Why getting a name right matters. It’s an important issue in the drive for equality and inclusivity.

In conclusion, it is important to recognise that your name is your identity. Your name matters. Just the other day Channel Four News ran an item about the latest migrant shipwreck near Lampedusa, in the Mediterranean. The reporter’s commentary provided a tragic context to my theme:

“We’re now used to seeing these kinds of pictures, but it doesn’t make them less shocking. Pushed by circumstance and desperation, thousands continue to risk the sea. Names we won’t know, numbers Europe doesn’t want.”

Every one of those migrants has a name; each name represents a person – somebody’s child, sibling, spouse, parent … a human being deserving of care and respect. That’s what’s in a name.